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New Religions for a New Republic

New Religions for a New Republic


Sectarian Impulses . American religion was reshaped in many ways, socially and intellectually, by the upheavals of the 1770s and 1780s. The clearest aspect of the process was the growth of new religious groups in America. As Americans established their independence from Britain, some of them sought other kinds of independence as well. Many looked for new ways of practicing their religious beliefs and new kinds of churches to join. Beginning in the 1780s, America experienced the full flowering of a sectarian impulse, the desire to break away from old churches and form new ones. Hundreds of new congregations gathered together in these decades. Some were short-lived, but others survive today. Some, like the Shakers, represented radically different alternatives to traditional Christianity.

Protestantism . In part, sectarianism represented the continuing evolution of Calvinism, the form of Protestantism most Americans at the time practiced. The teachings of John Calvin, the Protestant reformer of the 1530s, had been important to many European settlers of America, including the Puritans. One of those teachings was about the value of independent judgment in matters of religion; another was about reliance of the individual on the Bible for religious truth. In the years after the American Revolution, when republican ideas of civic equality and religious freedom were spreading rapidly, these notions seemed pertinent to many Americans. Groups taking exotic names such as the Merry Dancers, Come-Outers, and Nothingarians left the older churches and struck out on their own, seeking a better way and abandoning orthodoxy in the process. As Americans and as Protestants, they felt free to assert their right to satisfy their own consciences on religious matters.

Sects and Radicalism . Many early sects embellished traditional religion with new ideas and practices, sometimes in unsettling ways. The Universal Friends are an example. Jemima Wilkinson founded the group in Rhode Island in 1776 and led it until her death in 1819. Female leadership was only one mark of the radicalism of this group. Wilkinson was raised as a Quaker and had experienced emotional Protestant revival meetings, as well as visions of angels announcing the imminent end of the world. She began to call herself the Public Universal Friend and to preach about the spirit within her, which was ready to save others as well. Wilkinson quickly gained a following among war-weary Americans hoping for redemption and a more perfect world. In the 1780s small congregations of Universal Friends spread across southern New England, practicing a mix of Quaker and Congregationalist worship, interrupted by charismatic episodes of healing and exorcism. In 1790 the sect founded a settlement in upstate New York called New Jerusalem. Wilkinson lived in this Utopian community for thirty years with as many as 250 followers, building a base for the millennial kingdom. The Universal Friends and other sects, with their unusual beliefs such as pacifism, sexual freedom, communalism, and immortality, were clearly on the radical fringe of the day. They were often attacked for being so different. But they were also acting on the same ideas of personal freedom and the need for reform which animated many other early Americans, if not in such extreme ways.


The early national era saw the beginning of a new kind of religious singing as people turned away from chanting psalms to singing the more poetic kinds of hymns we are still familiar with today. The lyrics of these hymns offer some clues to what the singers may have believed and felt. This Shaker hymn expressed the importance of singing and dancing in worship services, a belief in the imminent second coming of Christ, and veneration for the founding mother, Ann Lee:

The Season of Loves

What beautiful songs do I hear!
How sweet is the season of loves!
When Father and Mother are near,
We feel like a parcel of doves.

How pleasant the brethren do look!
How smiling the sisters appear!
And Mother delights in her flock,
I know that her spirit is here.

O this is the union I love,
Here heavenly comforts are found;
The Spirit descends like a dove,
The angels are hovering round.

With them I rejoicd in the dance,
Their songs were so heavenly sweet;
Their love did my senses entrance, Their food such as angels do eat.

The Baptists sang hymns evocative of the emotions of the revival experience and the anxiety about knowing whether one was among the elect saved by Christs death, as in this example from 1786 by Henry Alline:

Hard Heart of Mine

Hard heart of mine,  O that the Lord
Would this hard heart subdue!
O come thou blest lifegiving word,
And form my soul anew.

I hear the heavenly pilgrims tell
Their sins are all forgiven;
And while on earth their bodies dwell,
Their souls enjoy a heaven.

The Christians sing redeeming love,
And talk of joys divine;
And soon they say in realms above,
In glory they shall shine.

But,  ah! tis all an unknown tongue,
I never knew that love;
I cannot sing that heavenly song,
Nor tell of joys above.

I want,  O God,  I know not what!
I want what saints enjoy;
O let their portion be my lot,
Their work be my employ.

Sources: Henry Alline, Hymns and Spiritual Songs (Boston: Peter Edes, 1786), p. 14;

Benjamin Seth Youngs, comp., Millennial Praises (Hancock, Mass., 1813), p. 66.

The Shakers. The most famous early American sect was the Shakers. These people called themselves the Believers in Christs Second Appearing, but others called them Shaking Quakers or Shakers because of their ecstatic movements during their worship services. The Shakers originated in England, coming as a group to New York in 1774, where they lived largely unnoticed until the 1780s. The leader was their Mother, Ann Lee, a visionary like Jemima Wilkinson. Lee considered her visions to be a commission from God to complete Christs work of redemption, eventually claiming herself to be the female incarnation of Christs second coming. She preached the complete rejection of this world as preparation for rising to a higher plane of existence at the imminent last judgment. Considering bondage to the flesh to be the root of all evil, she also advocated celibacy and ascetic communal living. Lee led her small band on a journey across New England from 1781 to 1783, gathering followers in the hill country and eventually settling outside Albany, New York. She died in 1784, just as the movement was beginning to gather strength.

Shaker Communities . The Shakers are best known today for their villages, where they lived together by sharing their labor and resources. They founded the first of these in New Lebanon, New York, in 1785, and there were nineteen villages, with perhaps four thousand residents, by the 1820s. Today the last Shakers still live together this way in Sabbathday Lake, Maine. The villages were one reason the Shakers survived so much longer than other early American sects. In them the Shakers could work together and worship apart from neighbors put off by their ecstatic dancing and their hymns about the simple gifts of the spirit. They could also protect themselves better from the frequent attacks they suffered from neighbors offended and threatened by their unorthodox beliefs, including pacifism and celibacy. The villages developed into versions of the perfect world the Shakers believed was soon coming. That was to be an orderly world focused on service to God, and it was represented in the utilitarian architecture and furniture for which Shakers are admired today. Their baskets and chairs were symbolic as well as functional; they indicated the Shakers rejection of elaborate worldly ways. Like other sectarians they seized the opportunity of American independence to build a new world for themselves. It is significant that the United States was engaged in the same experiment at this time, although on different terms.


Stephen A. Marini, Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982);

Stephen J. Stein, The Shaker Experience in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992);

Herbert A. Wisbey, Pioneer Prophetess: Jemima Wilkinson, the Public Universal Friend (Ithaca., N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964).

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